Day of remembrance: Memorial Day is far more than cookouts

Renee Prusi/Mining Journal (Marquette) James Niemela of Laurium holds two items being left at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., in memory of Calumet native Marshall Kipina. Niemela went on Upper Peninsula Honor Flight, Mission 14, Wednesday.

Marshall Frederick Kipina grew up in a community that was no stranger to war. Kipina was born on Dec. 18, 1944, two days after the attack of the American lines in Belgium that began the Battle of the Bulge. He was in first grade when the United States entered the Korean conflict, the “Forgotten War.” It was more common for high school graduates to enlist in the Military than not.

Many of the people he knew were veterans of war. As he neared his own graduation, Kipina saw the country he grew up in fall into confusion.

America was a deeply divided nation in the mid-20th century. It was a time of rapid change in music, culture, quickly shifting social, religious, and moral values. Much of America held to traditional values and paradigms, while much of America became more progressive socially and morally. These two divisions often clashed on a social stage rife with confusion. But nothing brought the intensities of these clashing paradigms to the forefront, or exemplified the feelings of Americans, more than the Vietnam War.

Some enlisted in the military, feeling it their duty to serve their country in time of war. Others waited to be drafted. Still others enrolled in college to avoid the draft, while a few, believing that the struggle in Vietnam was France’s and South Vietnam’s fight, went to Canada.

Kipina was in the first group.

Kipina, a Calumet Township resident, graduated from Calumet High School in 1964, and enlisted in the United States Army shortly after. After basic training, he was assigned to the1st Aviation Brigade, 14th Aviation Battalion, 12th Aviation Group, 131st Aviation Company. His unit was sent to Phu Bai Airbase at Hue, in southwest Vietnam. Kipina was an observer and airborne sensor operator.

On July 14, 1966, Kipina and Capt. Robert G. Nopp, pilot, flew out of Phu Bai on a classified surveillance mission over Laos. The company flew under the code names “Steel Tiger,” and “Tiger Hound,” That night, their call sign was “Iron Spud.” They were flying a Grumman OV-1C Mohawk, which was using infrared detection equipment and a forward-aiming camera, making it an excellent night surveillance plane that was able to detect enemy movement, as well as identify and confirm enemy targets. The night was stormy and windy, and as the plane flew over Laos, it suddenly disappeared from radar. It had vanished with no trace. Radar coordinates put the plane about 25 miles southwest of the city of Attopeu, but an exact location could not be confirmed.

During one of the subsequent searches for the the missing aircraft and its two-man crew, a parachute was sighted hanging in a tree, from which dangled a decapitated body. The body was later identified as a dummy, which was a favored tactic of the North Vietnamese. The dummy, probably booby-trapped, was not recovered. Kipina and Nopp were listed as missing in action.

In a nation where war protests could become as violent as any battle in Vietnam, several of Kipina’s former schoolmates also served in combat during the war.

“Kipina graduated in 1964 from Calumet High School, a graduating class from which 100 graduated,” said Eugene Larochelle, who had taught Kipina in high school. “Of those 100 graduates, 50 went into the Military, and of those, 26 were sent to Vietnam. Of those 26, two did not come home. Kipina was one of them.”

The 26 Calumet Township veterans who came home did not return to a welcoming community, however. Like happened in so much of the rest of the country, protesting civilians harassed returning veterans, engaging in name-calling, even throwing missiles.

“I remember walking down the street and being called names, and people would throw rocks at you,” Oskar Niemela, who served in the Army in Vietnam in 1967-68, said. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

Many Americans too young to remember the Vietnam War, or who were born after it ended, find Vietnam veterans to be a closed group, not very outgoing. If that is true, they learned it when they came home. Very few people welcomed them. And no civilian understood what they had been through, or what they had experienced, or what they had seen.

Many veterans of that war band together, they are identifiable by their baseball caps, tee-shirts, and many wear black leather vests displaying a variety of colorful military-related patches, buttons and pins. They became a brotherhood. They understood what it was like to fight a war that was unpopular back home. They understood fighting a war they themselves did not understand. What they did not understand was the hostility displayed against them by the civilians who called names and threw rocks.

America’s views of military veterans, and they are given respect for having served their county. The veterans of Vietnam have a voice that was silenced four decades ago.

On April 6, 2018, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in a public release announced Kipina’s and Nopp’s remains had been found and positively identified. The news of the identifications has sparked an intense interest among community members who want Kipina’s remains brought home. But it has also had a different impact on the Vietnam veterans throughout the township.

Niel Harry, who served in the Marines during 1970-1971 in Vietnam, said it has opened healing conversation.

“It’s made us talk more,” Harry said. “We’ve since come out of that shell. We’ve normalized.”

One of the healthiest societal evolutions since the war has been the recognition of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans, Harry said. Advances in studies involving Vietnam veterans is helping many returning veterans today.